ROME – From the beginning, it seemed the new Biden administration and Pope Francis’s Vatican likely would see eye-to-eye on many social and humanitarian concerns, creating a large swath of potential partnerships between the world’s leading hard power in Washington and the Vatican’s citadel of soft power in Rome.

Now some of that potential is being filled in, and one early focus may be surprising, if only for how prosaic it could seem: Water.

“Small investments in water, sanitation and hygiene, with groups such as our Rome-based partners, are able to get to the farthest reaches of communities in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, in Asia, around the world, and have a great impact,” said Adam Phillips, Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships & Local, Faith and Transformative Partnerships at the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

“If you don’t have clean water in a maternity ward, for instance, it’s going to have a ripple effect on the health care system for that child, and that family, and that community, “Phillips said. “It’s groups such as the ones we’re meeting here who will make the difference.”

Adam Phillips, Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships & Local, Faith and Transformative Partnerships at USAID. (Credit: USAID.)

Phillips, a former Evangelical pastor who was part of the Biden campaign in 2020, is in Rome for his first round of meetings with Vatican officials and other Catholic organizations since taking his post in March.

On his agenda are Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, as well as Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, who specializes in migrant and refugee issues. Phillips is also seeing other Vatican officials, such as Italian Sister Alessandra Smerilli, under-secretary of the Secretariat for the Economy and a member of the Vatican’s commission on the Covid pandemic.

In addition, Philips is making the rounds of organizations and movements, such as the Avsi Foundation, one of Italy’s largest overseas development NGOs; a group known by its Italian acronym CUAMM, which promotes medical and scientific development in Africa; and the Community of Sant’Egidio, which is engaged around the world in development, peace-making, reconciliation and ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, as well as a wide range of other social and humanitarian endeavors.

Phillips told Crux his trip was motivated in part by the fact that a colleague is currently wrapping up an embassy fellowship in Rome devoted to what development experts call “WASH,” meaning “water, sanitation and hygiene,” before moving on to a posting in South Sudan, and he wanted to take advantage to see what possibilities for making a difference might loom.

“We wanted to learn what he’s been up to this summer and to see what we can do when we go back to D.C. to find ways to partner around a really integral, essential concern, which is clean water and sanitation,” Phillips said.

According to UN statistics, some 2.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water around the world, more than half the global population doesn’t have safe sanitation, three billion people aren’t able to wash their hands with soap on a regular basis, and an estimated 673 million people practice open defecation because of lack of access to toilets.

The health consequences are staggering. UNICEF reports that more than 700 children dies every day around the world from diarrhoeal diseases related to shortages of water, sanitation and hygiene, and when fighting breaks out someplace, children are twenty times more likely to die from water-related diseases than from the combat itself.

According to Phillips, water, sanitation and hygiene are one example of a wide range of areas in which the administration and the Catholic Church can work together. He offered the example of his conversation with Smerilli on Covid.

“She’s a really a forward-thinker in terms of an evidence-based, solution-oriented approach to what we might call ‘building back better,’ what they might call ‘dreaming up a better future,’” he said.

“This alignment, in this moment, is really important. It’s an opportunity for us to reimagine … we’re not going back to pre-Covid, but how do we move forward? They were talking today about jobs for all, health for all, and these are values that are certainly in alignment with this administration’s concerns about how we build back better.”

“There’s so much more that we have in common when it comes to shared values,” Phillips said.

More broadly, Phillips said that looking to leverage resources with religious groups is simply smart policy.

“We know that when we’re looking to solve problems on behalf of the American people, to seek development solutions or humanitarian assistance, or even human rights and religious freedom, it’s institutions such as faith-based organizations with roots in Rome, and women’s religious who are the front lines of these concerns around the world, these are the partners we want to work with,” he said.

“We know that they’re solution-oriented, as we are.”

Although Phillips arrived in Rome in the wake of a controversy in the States over Biden’s Catholic standing, he said he’s not run into any ambivalence or hesitation here about partnerships.

“It’s been nothing but a spirit of hospitality and collaboration,” Phillips said. “Even just sitting at a table and breaking bread together, dreaming together about what we might be able to do, not just on Covid but also all the secondary challenges and concerns around Covid.”

“I’ve only experienced enthusiasm to say, ‘We’ve made it through this first terrible part of this pandemic together, in many ways, and let’s continue to work together,” he said.

Phillips also insisted that Biden’s commitment to working with religious groups isn’t just for show.

“Faith-based and neighborhood partnerships are at the center of this administration’s priorities when it comes to issues such as social development, humanitarian assistance,” he said. “These are matters around human dignity, and it’s going to take new and non-traditional partners, both faith-based and no particular faith at all, to address the challenges of our day, whether it’s climate, or Covid, or security issues.”

“This administration is prioritizing faith-based engagement across the US government,” he said. “There’s a real sense of purpose.”

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr